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The Three Rs: Running, Renovation, Revision

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I went for a run today, my first since I moved home to Cody two months and two days ago. I would say it felt great to be running again, but my relationship with running is much more complicated than that.

I need to run, something I know intellectually. But it takes a lot of emotional energy to talk myself into it, each time. I have an amazing ability to find excuses and wimp out. And then I feel bad because I didn't run. 

Once I get going though and find my pace, I feel pretty good, except when I run out of breath and don't. Still, the fact that I'm out and running keeps me going, both because I am competitive and hate to quit, and because I feel pretty darned saintly to be exercising. 

The best part is after I finish, when I feel simply and unambiguously great, my body tired, but loose and limber, my mind righteous, and my spirits high because running takes me outside, and as my artist-friend Sherrie York says on her website, "outside fuels our insides." Time in nature is the best medicine for body, mind, and spirit. 

Today's run wasn't long--I did about 2.5 miles through quiet streets and down the hill to the upper bench above the Shoshone River where it winds in its shallow canyon past town. I ran through fragrant sagebrush, looking for signs of spring in the still-winter-brown high desert landscape, like the mat of dwarf phlox in the photo above, the living parts of the aged mat greening up.

I followed the city-maintained river trail with its great views of the surrounding Bighorn Basin landscape until its end, and then I headed back, slowing to a walk for the switchbacks up the steep hill, and then running through city streets to home. 

(The photo at the top of the post is from that river trail, looking southwest to Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains on the way to Yellowstone; the photo above is looking down-river in the opposite direction toward McCullough Peaks, a badlands wilderness northeast of Cody.)

On the renovation front, the biggest progress this week has been in the attic, where my contractor, Jeff, has been adding vents so the attic can breathe, which is important for all sorts of reasons, including letting the roof cool down in summer, and keeping mold from growing up there.  

The other big change is the small bathroom taking shape in my bedroom, with a washer-dryer closet next to it, and a narrow linen closet between. When it's all finished, I'll have my own little suite--bedroom, bath, laundry, and my office opening off the bedroom. 

The unused end of my bedroom before, with my office on the right. 

And now, with the walls of the bathroom and laundry center taking shape, the plumbing and wiring roughed in. 

Looking the other direction at my bed and its corner of windows that makes me feel like I'm sleeping in a treehouse...

On the writing front, I finished a feature article for Wildflower Magazine, and when I turned it in, my editor wrote back to say she loved it, "and thanks for making my job easier." That's music to any writer's ears! 

The more difficult part of my writing week was yet another rejection for my memoir, Bless the Birds, with a lovely note from the editor who said the writing was beautiful, the story touching and engrossing, and the characters and sense of place powerful. But she didn't want it. 

After listening to a webinar with Brooke Warner, publisher of SheWrites Press, I think I know what's wrong and why despite all of the praise for this memoir of my heart, no editor has snatched it up: it's the economics of publishing today. Memoirs normally run between 70,000 and 80,000 words, and Bless the Birds is 97,000 words, albeit downsized significantly from 125,000 in last summer's intense revision

Brooke explained the money end in a way I hadn't heard it before. Sure, she said, a memoir or novel can be longer, but when an editor is making the calculations to sell a manuscript to the publication committee, she or he has to justify additional length in terms of some kind of great platform to drive sales, because the longer a book is, the more it costs, "and margins in publishing are already thin." 

A manuscript of more than 80,000 words, Brooke said, simply costs too much to produce. And then she added for me what was the kicker, "and people are reading shorter and shorter these days," in part, she explained, because they're reading in snatches of time between other commitments, or on a mobile device. 

So I've made the difficult decision to clear time in my schedule and dive back into a manuscript I thought I was done with. My aim: shrink the word count by more than 20 percent and make the story stronger and more compelling, more universal, as I do so.

And not shred my heart along the way; this is a love story, but it's a painful one. I owe it to the guy in the photo below, and the life we made even as brain cancer ended his, to get the story right so it can help us all live our days well and with grace, whatever our path.

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011

PS: My apologies about the issues with the comment function on this blog. It's always been annoying, and now it doesn't work at all. Sigh. Another thing to deal with in time, and thanks for your patience! 

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Renewal Inside and Out

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Spring is coming to my long-neglected house and yard. The photo above is my amazing arborist, Aaron Danforth, de-limbing one of two green ash trees in my front yard. Neither has had an arborist's attention in a long time--perhaps never, and this one has a split in its main trunk so deep that it groans when the wind blows, and spits out fist-sized chunks of rotten wood. 

Despite some windy days and a toddler with croup, Aaron, a rock-climber who became an arborist because he loves trees and loves climbing, has managed to de-limb three of the eight huge spruces in my front and back-yard, fell one entirely, and take that ash tree down to its fat trunk. Which is why I have some sizable piles of mulch to deal with (the front-yard one is to the right of the ash tree in the photo above). 

While Aaron was climbing and sawing and chipping, my contractor, Jeff Durham, installed eighteen insulated roman shades throughout the house, a job that involved quite some finagling. Retrofitting anything in a 60-year-old house is not simple. 

The shades have already made a difference in the nighttime temperatures inside, and since this house was not even slightly energy efficient when it came to me, that's a big deal.

They also look elegant. The fabric is a pewter gray color with the slubbed look of raw silk and a slight sheen. I think it's the same fabric as the roman shades I loved in the casita where I stayed for my Women's International Study Center fellowship in Santa Fe last fall with playwright DS Magid, and scholar Stanlie James

(DS and Stanlie, do you recognize that fabric?)

Jeff also replaced the non-working light and ugly pole at the end of my driveway with a new post and working solar-powered light, and framed in the en-suite bath in the unused end of my bedroom so that it's ready for wiring and plumbing rough-in. 

When the bath is finished, we'll replace the floor, which was in such bad shape we couldn't save it, and paint my bedroom. (The bookshelves in the opening on the right are in my office--I have a short commute!)

Jeff's daughter Shantel, ace painter, finished applying the soft yellow color inspired by my vintage kitchen cabinets to three walls of the living/dining room (it's a long room, so that's a lot of wall!), and then painted the end wall of the dining room in the more sagey of the two green shades that I'm using as accent colors throughout the house. 

The color is less minty in person than in this photo

Then she painted another wall in the breakfast nook in that same soft yellow, brightening the space considerably.

 

While Aaron sawed, chipped, and felled, Jeff built, and Shantel painted, what was I doing? When I wasn't coordinating the restoration work and ordering supplies, I was at my desk writing. I finished a feature article for WILDFLOWER Magazine, and my monthly column for Houzz, which you can read here

Best office ever...

This weekend I took a break from writing to join the restoration work. I rolled my wheelbarrow out of the garage, grabbed my leaf rake and scoop shovel, and went to work spreading fragrant spruce-bough mulch on the eroded and bare soil in my yard resulting from my too many trees. 

Mulch will not only shade the soil from both hot summer sun and winter cold, it'll help retain moisture and allow rain and snow-melt to sink in rather than running off. Its sheltering qualities will make the community of micro- and macro-organisms living below the surface happier, and they thus will work their own brand of renewal magic, making the soil healthier for my remaining trees and all else rooted there. 

As I spread mulch in my east-side yard, I discovered neon-green daylily sprouts along the house foundation, plus daffodils poking up darker green leaves. Both are emerging in response to sunlight, which hasn't reached that area in decades. 

By the time I had reduced the front-yard mulch pile to almost nothing late this afternoon, my back and shoulders were protesting. So I stowed my tools, came inside and cleaned up, and made myself dinner. And then headed for that long teal couch in the living room, where I sit now with my feet up, writing this post and admiring the stars in the night sky out the window. 

I feel very grateful to have the work of writing and helping bring this house and yard back to life. There is much hard work ahead, but I am heartened by how far we have come. Spring is coming, and with it the promise of renewal. We can all take heart from that. 

Arabella the Christmas cactus thinks it's spring already!

 

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One Nation, Indivisible & Renovation

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I first heard about the Indivisible movement from my 88-year-old dad in January, not long after I moved to Wyoming. In our weekly call--he lives just 15 minutes from my brother and sister-in-law, but I still check in almost every weekend, since Dad lives alone and is legally blind--I asked what was up in his world. 

"Well," he said, "three gals from Panorama [the senior community where he lives] and I visited our Senators' offices to talk about our concerns." 

"We're using the Indvisible Handbook," he added. "And following their recommendations about how to communicate with our members of Congress."

I hadn't heard of Indivisible then, and as Dad filled me in about the grassroots movement, my mind leapt to the Pledge of Allegiance, which as a child of the public schools, I recited every school-day for more than a decade:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, and with liberty and justice for all.

(That's the version adopted in 1954; the original version was shorter, especially the final clause, which read simply, "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.")

Within the next couple of weeks, Wyoming Rising, the group that formed out of the Cody Women & Allies Rally, adopted the Indivisible Handbook as its guide for action. I've been impressed by the speed with which the movement has grown, and its effectiveness in getting out the message of fairness, of liberty and justice for all.

The name "Indivisible" is brilliant: for its simplicity, its evocation of the patriotism in the Pledge of Allegiance, and for its reference to what is a founding concept of this democracy of ours: we are "one nation, indivisible."

Indivisible. n. Unable to be divided or separated. 

No matter our religious, cultural, racial or political differences, we have more in common as human beings, as citizens and residents of these United States, than not. At heart we want the same things (though not necessarily in the same order): good lives for ourselves and our families, love, jobs, comfortable homes, religious freedom, education, a healthy environment, financial security, health care, a future that looks bright. 

It seems to me that we are most likely to achieve those things if we work together, instead of fracturing on lines of ideology and politics.

I am reminded of the Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn quote on a Solstice broadside sent out by Clifford Burke and Virginia Mudd of Desert Rose Press

If it where only so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and if it were only necessary to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

None of us are perfect. None of us have all the answers. But together, we can do great things--for all. 

*****

On the house restoration front, it's been a busy week. Probably the biggest change is that the weather was balmy enough that Jeff Durham, my contractor, was able to work outside and remove the carport addition that turned my front entry into a dark and forbidding cave. 

The front entry before, with Jeff up on its flat roof (which didn't drain and thus had begun to rot). My front door is back there in that dark hole. 

The front entry after, with my new front-door patio exposed (room for the cluster of pots sitting on the lawn, plus perhaps a stock-tank planter full of tomatoes and basil....). In the morning, the sun now reaches under those eaves and lights the kitchen. 

That now-sunny kitchen, with more door handles returned to their original copper shine (29 handles done, 14 to go). 

Tree-removal work commenced as well, thanks to Aaron Danforth of Arbor Solutions Tree Care, beginning with the big spruce that was threatening to fall on my living room and dining room. For those who hate the idea of removing trees, let me reassure you: When Aaron is done removing three mature spruces, seven Rocky Mountain junipers, two sick European Mountain Ash, and one green ash tree split almost to its base, I will still have a mini-forest of five huge spruces, three crabapple trees (which will have space to breathe and grow), one green ash and one honey-locust. 

(That's Aaron halfway up the big Engelmann spruce, removing limbs. He's a rock climber who took to tree work.)

Inside the house, we're replacing plumbing fixtures that barely work with new efficient ones (one toilet done, two more to go), and, in the most visible development, Shantel, Jeff's daughter and also mother of his adorable toddler grandson, Jayden, is painting in between mom-ing and school (she's working toward a nursing degree). 

This weekend Shantel finished the fussy work of painting the kitchen wall above the cabinets "Cloudless" blue to match the wall oven and microwave, and painted the end wall of the adjacent breakfast nook in the soft yellow I picked to go with my vintage metal cabinets. 

(Art on the left-hand wall by Salida printmaker Sherrie York; mandala by Tommy Williams of Riverton, Wyoming; vintage table from Connie and Jay Moody of Cody;  jonquils from Kerry and Dave Nelson of the former Ploughboy Local Market in Salida)

And then she really got on a roll and painted two of the living room walls with that same yellow. ("They Call it Mellow"--you have to love color names!) Between the new paint and removing the horrible brown drapes and hardware, the room looks bigger, lighter and brighter. 

Next week, Jeff will install the insulating roman shades that are currently lying on the floor, and then start framing in the space in my bedroom that will become a small "en suite" bathroom (so when I'm old, I won't have to share the main bathroom with my live-in companion...). 

Did I say that I love my house? And that it's satisfying, healing and downright exciting to help bring it back to life?

I am grateful--to be alive, to be home again, and to be involved in so much positive work, my writing, this house-restoration project, and in speaking up for the earth and my fellow humans. Bless us all!

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That Balm in Gilead

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There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead
To soothe a sin-sick soul.  

Those lines in my favorite spiritual are running through my head tonight because I sang them Sunday morning at the early service at the Episcopal Church.

(Some of you are probably saying, Whoa! What's a Quaker doing at an Episcopal Church? Well, there's no Quaker meeting in Cody. The Episcopal Church is in walking distance, and boasts really glorious music thanks to music director Jim Hager, plus insightful sermons by the rector, Rev. Mary Caucutt. And I have good friends in the congregation.)

This last was something new to me, a hymn-sermon service. No words from Rev. Mary, who always seems to say something I needed to hear. Still, as Warren Murphy, the previous rector, and Jim talked about each hymn, Warren interpreting the history and meaning of the words, and Jim the music, I found myself fascinated by these new perspectives on familiar verses and melodies.

And then when we got to the final hymn, There is a Balm in Gilead (click to listen to one particularly good choral recording), my whole spirit just lit up. What I love about this spiritual that has become a hymn is that refrain. There is a balm in Gilead... 

There really is a balm in Gilead. (I realize there's a metaphor about Jesus as the balm, but I like to know real-world truth under the metaphor.) The balm is an fragrant ointment made from the resinous sap of a small tree called Gilead or Mecca myrrh (Commiphora opobalsumum). The tree, native to the Mideast around the Red Sea, is in the same family as other small desert trees species that produce Frankinsence, Myrrh, Copal, and incense.

Botanical illustration of the tree, and its leaves, flowers, and fruits from an antique German flora

The sap of the Gilead tree is what has the healing properties. (It has been studied recently for its efficacy in preventing and healing gastric ulcers, among other uses.)

By now, you are wondering where I am going with this spiritual, and the real or metaphoric balm. Here's where:

I didn't realize, until I moved into this badly neglected house with its beautiful bones, how much I needed a balm, a project that would heal my heart, wounded from losing my mom and Richard five years ago, and freshly hurt by the bitterly divisive politics in my former small town and now the nation. 

This place is my balm. The house with its big windows and great light, the sheltering forest of too-many spruce trees it is tucked into, my restoration project in progress, my small circle of friends and the warmly welcoming larger community, and this expansive landscape studded with fragrant sagebrush, my personal healing plant--all are working to heal wounds I hadn't realized were still aching, and to soothe my soul, sickened by the violence and hatred and mean-spirited tribalism that seem to be flourishing in our world today. 

I moved home knowing intuitively that I needed to be here, but not really sure why it felt so urgent. Now I understand: this is my balm in Gilead. 

So when I'm not writing (my current project is a feature article for Wildflower Magazine), I am continuing to work on bringing Spruce House, as I have begun calling it, back to life. While my contractor, electrician, and plumber focus on the big stuff (like building walls, making the wiring safe and functional, and installing working fixtures in the bathrooms), I'm doing smaller projects.

Over the weekend, I focused on the basement stairs. Saturday I spent about four hours filling in as many of the nail holes and gouges and I could, repeating to myself "They're basement stairs; they don't have to be perfect." (And they're clearly not, as the photo above shows!) 

Then I sanded the filler, and washed each tread and riser with oil soap. After which came priming the stairs; that took most of yesterday afternoon. And then, last night, I painted the first couple of steps with their new color: Cloudless, a sky-blue that just happens to match the vintage wall-oven in my kitchen (and the couch where I am stretched out, feet up writing this blog post, as well as my new living room rug). 

Primer coat on, still not pretty, but definitely lighter and brighter... 

And then that blue, a huge change from the filthy brown carpet I pulled off the steps a week ago. 

I've started installing bath hardware in the one bathroom where all three fixtures work (one of which is the beautiful granite basin Richard carved), and I'm continuing to strip the dingy gray paint from the beautiful copper door handles and drawer pulls in my kitchen.

New towel ring... 

Each task accomplished (19 handles cleaned, 24 to go...) is one more step toward restoring this house to healthy life; each is also a personal triumph. I can do this!, I remind myself as I pick up a tool or tape measure, as I scrape paint. "Tool girl" doesn't come naturally for me; it is a skill I only learned after Richard died. So I am continually surprised and proud of myself that I can build, maintain, repair... And that the work gives me such a positive boost. 

Just look at those shining copper-coated handles!

We all need a balm in tough times, something literal or figurative to heal us and soothe our spirits. Depending on our needs and the times, that balm might be a vacation, a new spiritual practice, creative or constructive work, family and friends, a new exercise regime, a volunteer project, a resolve to eat more healthfully or sleep more... 

I am grateful to have found my balm right here in the home of my heart, in this house I didn't know I needed, in a community and landscape I had forgotten how much I loved. 

Come spring, I'm going to plant some sagebrush in my yard. Then I'll truly be home. 

Big sagebrush growing on the hill above my neighborhood. 

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Restoration as a Calling

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I've been home a month as of yesterday, a span of time that seems both impossibly short and un-countably long. Short when I think about everything we've gotten done on this house-project, and forever when I realize how familiar it is to be back. 

(Yesterday was also Molly's birthday. Happy Birthday, Sweetie!)

I walk almost the same route to the Post Office every afternoon that I took daily when I lived in Cody thirty-plus years ago, climbing the steep sidewalk up the sagebrush-clothed hillside above my neighborhood, and passing houses whose occupants I can name. (The photo at the top of the post is the view from the top of the hill.) In fact, I live in the same neighborhood I did back then. 

Of course, much has changed in my life and in the town. I am sixty, now, widowed with a "kid" who is an adult; when I left Cody for Laramie and grad school, I was newly divorced and hadn't met either Richard or Molly. Much less moved with them to West Virginia, Washington State, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and then back to Colorado.

I've lived a whole life away from this place: I step-mothered Molly, wrote twelve books and hundreds of articles, essays and stories for magazines and newspapers around the country; I nursed my mother and the love of my life through their deaths in the same year. I finished and sold the house Richard built for us and his studio too, and built a snug house and guest studio of my own.

All of that away from the place that has called me home for as long as I remember. Which may explain why I am so happy here in the midst of a house-project I never imagined taking on, with a yard that needs even more work than the house. 

My bedroom, still in progress... That green spot on the wall is a sample of the color it will be eventually; the floors are in such bad shape they can't be refinished, so they'll be covered with reproduction plank flooring.  

I wake every morning in my bedroom with the unfinished floors and walls that need painting, and am ridiculously happy. I am home, I think. I have found my refuge, one I needed more than I realized. I also have found my calling. 

I need the place itself, the landscape that smells like sagebrush, the views bounded by mountains I know intimately because I have walked their slopes and ridges in the days I did fieldwork here. 

And I need this house, both because its beautiful bones speak to me of care, craftsmanship, and comfort; and because it has been so neglected. The house needs me and my vision (and savings!). The restoration project it represents is something positive I can do when the world is so full of negativity, a way to work forward in a time seemingly stalled by divisiveness and fear. 

Restoration as I am practicing it here is both hard physical work and metaphor. It is also my calling in life, especially now. 

Ripping the horrible and filthy carpet off the basement stairs yesterday morning, for instance, not only satisfied my inner Tool Girl--using that little pry bar to remove that which I cannot restore is amazingly satisfying!--it also gave me the kind of workout that makes my muscles sing and sends me to bed early, to sleep well and long. 

Having my hands on tools and the work of bringing this beautiful but badly treated house back to life satisfies my need to heal, to reweave the fabric of the human community, if just in this small way, in a time when we have split along bitter political/religious/tribal lines.

The work I am doing along with my contractor and his trades-colleagues isn't about red or blue or who voted which way (or didn't vote at all); it's not some kind of litmus test for who is good or who is evil.

It is simply positive work. We find common ground in tools and design, and in working hard and smart, in teasing each other, in sympathizing about kids making bad choices or aging parents slipping away. We ask each other's advice, appreciate the craft we practice, and the drive to do it well.

We talk about mundane stuff and also about more esoteric things, like what it means to be a good, caring person, and how "community" comes from "common" and means remembering that we share our humanity, that we are stronger together.  

I am reminded of the deeper meanings of restoration each time we make the decision about whether some aspect of the house is in good enough shape that it can be fixed up, or it is too far gone and must go, like that truly nasty carpet on the basement stairs.

When I finished removing that carpet and its accumulated grime. I set to pulling out the staples, tacks, and even three-penny nails (who nails down carpet?) that had held it and at least one previous iteration in place.

My trusty nail-pulling pliers, which in a previous life trimmed the hooves on my horses, and served to pry out loose horseshoe nails too...

What I found underneath was a set of well-built if battered wood stairs, which when patched and re-painted, will look inviting (instead of scary) and be sturdy and comfortable underfoot. Not art, but good workmanship. 

Imagine these stairs with the holes filled and a fresh coat of paint that brightens up the space.

To restore is to rebuild (literally as well as figuratively: restore comes from the Latin word that means "to rebuild"); in that rebuilding, we evaluate what we have, save what we can, and start over on what we can't. We work with the now, knowing it's not perfect. 

Sometimes restoration brings welcome surprises, uncovering beauty hidden beneath the surface. As with the handles on the original sunshine-yellow metal cabinets in my vintage kitchen. They are gray, and I assumed until I recently took a closer look that they were metal dulled by 60 years of use. 

Not so: The gray chipped off under my fingernail, revealing bright copper beneath. Oh my!

Last night I surfed the internet, looking for non-toxic ways to remove paint from metal door hardware. On This Old House, I found this one: "Simmer" the hardware overnight in hot, not boiling water, with a tablespoon or two of dish soap.

A handle in the process of simmering away the gray paint... 

Then simply scrape off the paint with a stiff plastic bristle brush (I didn't have a brush, so I used my fingernails), and polish. It worked! 

Two handles cleaned, polished, and reattached. Forty-one more to go... 

It seems to me that what we need right now is a lot more energy aimed at restoration--restoring our lives and communities, and a lot less polarization, anger and fear. What we have is what we have. We can't go back. 

But we can go forward with an aim to restore, to thoughtfully evaluate what we find, and then work hard and smart--together--to save and shine up what we can, and rebuild what we can't. 

We may find beauty we didn't imagine in the doing. We'll surely rediscover our commonality, what unites us as caring human beings, and that is a gift we truly need. 

Can you spot those three copper handles? They match the original copper-clad range hood. 

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On the Road & Home Again

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Last Thursday, Red and I hit the road promptly at eight-thirty am, and I envisioned clear roads for the 490-mile drive to Denver, where I was scheduled to speak at ProGreen Expo on Friday and the Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference on Saturday.


The roads were clear, even if for the first hour and a half (photo above), the landscape on either side was distinctly snowy. But by the time I wound through the Wind River Canyon and turned east toward Casper, the snow-pack decreased markedly.



The Wind River Canyon, with its towering cliffs of Paleozoic limestones and dolomites, one of my favorite parts of the drive. 


Only the wind started to blow. For the 90 miles from Shoshoni to Casper, it was mostly a tail-wind. That was good. 


From Casper on, that changed, and the gusts walloping Red grew stronger and stronger. The overhead warning signs on Interstate 25 advised the road was closed to light, high-profile vehicles because of gusts 60+ mph.


I can attest to the "plus" part: as I was exiting at Wheatland to fill Red's gas tank, I watched a semi truck and trailer blow over in a particularly vicious gust, the whole rig toppling slowly onto its side. A highway patrol car stopped right away, so I headed on to the gas station, where I had to hang onto Red's side mirrors to keep from being blown off my feet! 


The gusts continued, and the air temperature continued to climb, until when I finally stopped in Boulder to pick up my cool new retro microwave at Big Chill appliances (more about that later), it was 78 degrees. Quite a change from the 25-degree temperatures as I left Cody that morning. 


The next day, I wandered the trade show at ProGreen, talking to tree farmers, nursery-folk, and vendors of mini-excavators (I got to sit in the cab of one and play with the controls) and arborist's tools (I bought a wicked new pruning saw), among others. (ProGreen is the annual convention of the region's "green industry," landscapers, maintainers of public gardens and golf courses, equipment providers, and nursery folk.)



My talk, "Terroir in Landscaping: Restoring Local Flavor," was in the last group of presentations of the four-day conference, and it was 80 balmy degrees outside, so I wasn't sure I'd get much of an audience. To my surprise, more than 100 people showed up, and they were completely absorbed and attentive through the whole hour. (This column from Houzz explains one facet of terroir as that French word for local flavor applies to landscaping.)


Afterwards, an eager group came up to thank me and ask questions. One guy said, "Best talk of the whole conference! Thank you." Wow! 


Then my friend and fellow plant nerd Erica Holtzinger and I went out to lunch and talked plants and kids and life. After which I went off to do big-city errands, and then braved rush-hour traffic (where do all of those people come from?) to stay with another friend, Connie Holsinger (no relation to Erica, although we have all worked together) of the Habitat Hero Project and Terra Foundation. 


The next day was an all-day immersion in the second annual Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants Conference. I had the honor of welcoming the participants to the sold-out conference and MCing the opening panel, after which I taught a workshop on Design with Natives, ate lunch with a table-full of eager attendees and answered questions, and then served as introducer and time-keeper for another session, and then helped move and re-arrange tables and chairs at the end of the day.



Great job, Jen, Ronda, Amy, Deryn, Jim, Irene, Nick, and Karen!


So if I look a little tired in the photo above of the Conference planning committee, all of us giddy that we pulled off another successful conference, it's not surprising. 


Connie, who also participated in the conference, took me out to dinner at Zucca Restaurant in Louisville that night, and we both ate so much delicious Italian food that we were sorry we hadn't walked there and back. (I was tempted to lick my plate after finishing off a serving of pumpkin ravioli with browned sage butter.) 


The next morning (yesterday!), I was packed and ready to hit the road by seven-thirty. It was damp, chill and cloudy, but I could see blue skies to the north, and Red doesn't care what the weather is like--she's always ready for a road-trip. 


We stopped in Cheyenne at a Home Depot to buy some bath fixtures, LED lightbulbs and other house-renovation supplies, and then drove on. The wind wasn't blowing (much, for southeastern Wyoming), the sun was shining, and I was ready to be home. 


At four pm, I pulled Red into the garage. And then came unloading, including that new retro microwave, which I immediately unboxed and put on its shelf (it's on the right in the photo below), and as I hoped, it provides the perfect aqua counterpoint to my vintage wall oven. 



Officially the coolest kitchen I have ever had... 


And then I walked into the living/dining room and discovered that Sam, the electrician who installed and programmed the amazing  wifi light-switch system that meant we didn't have to rewire the entire house, had also unpacked and installed Sputnik, the retro chandelier I had ordered for the dining room.


Of course, I had to find the LED Edison light-bulbs I had gotten at Home Depot and install them. And then I had to turn Sputnik on and play with the wifi dimming switch for a few minutes.



Sputnik in all his glory...


After I finished unpacking Red, I walked to the Post Office, and when I returned, I found a box from Kerry and Dave Nelson, dear friends and former proprietors of Ploughboy, Salida's late lamented local-food grocery store. I opened it and carefully lifted out a container of spring: bulbs in a beautiful yellow metal pot just the color of my kitchen cabinets. (Those jonquil sprouts are still yellow as well from their time in the box in transit, but they'll green up in a few days.)



There is still an enormous amount of work (and money) required to bring this house back to life: we need to finish updating the electrical systems, re-do some plumbing, replace a few floors, paint all of the walls and ceilings (my office is the only room that is more-or-less finished), tear off the horrible carport that makes the front entry bay a dark tunnel, add insulation throughout, replace some windows, and clean more accumulated grime. Then there's the yard: the snow blanket has melted and I can now see the mess (including the scary half-collapsed garden shed) and mud I will have to deal with come spring. 


No matter. I love this place already. I feel so fortunate to be here watching the evening sky turn pink and listening to the pair of great-horned owls hooting their soft duet from the spruce trees just outside. 


And to have friends and family and colleagues who offer support and kindness from near and far. Bless you all!

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Renovation and Human Kindness

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I am writing this from my new desk in my newly painted, trimmed, and book-shelf-lined office. My desk, a sheet of melamine counter material that Jeff, my contractor, cut to fit and trimmed with nice wood edging, is perched it on two clean sawhorses in the window bay with a view of one of the huge old spruce trees in my backyard.

Above me hangs a beautiful boat-with-a-sail sculpture by Salida sculptor B Strawn, half of the renowned Strawn duo (her husband, Mel, is a also a visual artist, and former chair of the DU art department). The colors could have been chosen for this mid-century modern house, but that's just a happy accident--Richard gave me the sculpture for Christmas years ago. 

Keeping ahead of Jeff and his colleagues means I work long days scrubbing and scraping, painting and assembling (or disassembling), making decisions about renovation and ordering materials, plus preparing for two different presentations at two different garden conferences later this week. I fall into bed each night exhausted but deeply happy to be here, and get up and plunge in again. 

We've made a huge amount of progress, mostly the kind that if you don't love house guts as much as I do may not seem impressive, but trust me, it's big stuff, all critical to bringing my terribly neglected home back to health.

I've got a new main electrical panel, so I no longer wake up at night worrying that the rat's nest of wires in the old one will catch fire. And when I want to replace one of the many truly ugly light fixtures the "investors" who owned the house before me added, I actually know which breaker to turn off so I won't electrocute myself in the doing. 

The rat's nest, partly untangled. (Thank you, Sam, of Bucking Horse Electric!)

My office, a bonus room that opens off the master bedroom, which when I first looked at the house might have been described in real-estate-ease as a "fixer-upper" with "great potential," is now clean, sports trim that seals the gaps between the walls and ceiling and at the corners, is painted cheerful lemon-yellow, minty green and a pale aqua (very 50s colors!); and is lined with bookshelves. 

I did the cleaning and part of the painting (and figured out the color scheme, which was the most fun), designed the "desk" and the bookshelves. Jeff did the trim and the building, and his daughter Chantal, who has way more patience than I do, finished painting the office, including doing the ceiling and the baseboard registers. 

The biggest project we've undertaken so far, replacing Igor, my 60-year-old boiler with a new, more efficient boiler plus an inline water-heating system, should be finished by the end of the evening. I hope so, because I've been without heat and hot water for three days and I'm really looking forward to having them again! 

Igor, just before being retired...

The plan for replacing Igor was inspired during the biggest blizzard in what the locals here are all calling the worst winter in decades, before I even bought the house, when my plumber had an appointment one Tuesday night to assess Igor. When he and Jeff got inside with my real estate agent, John Feeley, the place was cold.

John said in his laconic way, "I think we have a problem." And then they heard a Crack! followed by gushing water, as the faucet in the main bathroom broke and began to fountain. Igor had quit and the waterlines had begun to freeze. (The house was vacant.) The guys spent the next two hours draining all the waterlines to save the house.  

My plumber's been designing Igor's replacement system in his head since that night, and this weekend he began the long and thorny job. (It's a whole heck of a lot easier to put a boiler in a new house than to retrofit a modern boiler system in an old one.)

The big job began on Friday, when Jeff rented a rock-drill with a bit the size of a gas pipe to bore a 12-inch hole through the concrete foundation wall between the basement boiler room and the crawl space for the new boiler flue, which had to go that way before going up an inside wall in my bedroom and out the roof. (The old flue wasn't up to code, and as my plumber discovered when he unhooked Igor, it was so clogged with spruce bark and needles and mummified birds and other detritus, it's a wonder Igor worked at all.) 

Jeff in the crawl space, drilling away...

Listening to the whine of the drill from the basement reminded me of days when Richard would be drilling or grinding away, shaping a boulder into a basin in the breezeway between his studio and Terraphilia, the big house. Is it any wonder that I love tools, and design and construction?

Saturday morning bright and early Jeff and the plumber started in on the actual replacement. First they detached Igor, which meant no more heat or hot water until his replacements, Pancho and Lefty (photo below) were in place, plumbed, wired, and attached to the gas line again.

Pancho, the new aqua-blue boiler (positioned below the substantial hole in the foundation wall) and Lefty, the new inline water-heater to be attached to Pancho as the weekend progresses. That's Igor photo-bombing on the far left side of the picture.

Which will be by the time I get this posted, if all goes well. 

After the guys wrestled all 500 pounds of Igor out of the way, and then wrestled both Pancho and Lefty down the basement stairs and into the boiler room, Dave worked on designing the plumbing while Jeff worked on a path up through the house and attic for the flue (I suggested using the inside wall of my bedroom, which turned out to be the best route). 

Then came the drilling and sawing of holes by Jeff, and the pipe design by the plumber. Getting the flue in place and out the roof (Did I mention a Chinook wind was blowing? That was a blessing in that it was relatively warm, but made erecting the flue chimney challenging) took the better part of the day.

Jeff (left) and Dave (back to the photo) assembling and hanging Pancho's flue in the crawl space. Not fun. 

Out the roof at last! ("There's water leaking down the flue onto the bedroom floor," said Chantal as she carefully painted trim in my office. I relayed the message to her dad on the roof. "It'll quit as soon as I seal the roof," he shouted back. It did.)

Once that was done, my plumber got out his copper pipe and begin cutting and fitting and soldering. That continued until quarter to nine on Saturday night, and all day yesterday, while Chantal finished painting and Jeff installed my office shelves and I worked on a digital presentation. By the end of the day (meaning seven-thirty last night), the copper-pipe sculpture connecting Pancho and Lefty, and the four zones of my heat plus the hot-water-tank was finished. 

The copper-pipe sculpture in progress

This morning, George, the 78-year-old electrician, appeared to do the wiring magic. At dinnertime, my plumber returned to cut and fit gas lines, test the system, check the pressure and install thermostats.

As of right now, I hear a humming in the basement, a happy sound that indicates my radiators will soon be emitting heat, and I'll be able to take a shower tomorrow morning, when the system reached temperature. 

I'm headed for the living room to lounge on my fabulous new couch, which arrived by truck freight this noon. Jeff helped me uncrate it and haul it inside, but I put on the legs myself using the ridiculously too-short hex wrench supplied. 

The house is beginning to warm up, and there's the promise of hot water soon. I'm feeling pretty fortunate. Those simple pleasures remind me to be grateful for what I have. 

Which is a lot. Not the least of my blessings is that I work with people who care enough about the job they do that they stay late and get it done right. We might not agree on everything--I don't know because I don't ask--but I do know that they're kind and caring folks because of how they've treated me, a stranger new to their community.

And that restores my faith in humanity, something we can all use, now and always. 

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Home: Restoring Hope Inside and Out

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I am writing this post from the breakfast nook off the vintage kitchen of my new old house in Cody, in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Late-afternoon sun pours in through windows that are gray with at least a decade of grime, but no matter.

Through the door to the living/dining room I can see the shine return to the red-oak floors as they dry from their final coat of Bona Floor Rejuvenate. I have my feet up on one of only four chairs in my house, taking a break from the hard and long work of restoring this very neglected house. 

(Until the moving van arrives, my furniture consists of four vintage maple chairs and a matching table, all of which need refinishing; my Thermarest camping mattress and sleeping bag, which are surprisingly comfortable; plus a couple of packing boxes for side tables.)

My bedroom, in serious need of a new coat of paint and some furniture, but there's art on the walls. (That's a broadside by prinkmater Karla Elling of a quote from Terry Tempest Williams that begins, "I pray to the birds....")

When I look over my shoulder at the kitchen, I can't help but smile. The sunshine yellow steel cabinets, aqua wall oven and copper range hood, all circa 1956, the year the house was built and I was born, are gleaming again, thanks to Susie and Natalia, the cleaning elves who came to help me on Friday.

While I worked on hands and knees with a rag, paint scraper and bucket after bucket of Murphy oil soap and hot water, scrubbing years of grime and splatters off the floors, they carefully cleaned and buffed the kitchen, coaxing back its shine. And what a shine it has! I swear I can feel the house exhaling, happy to be tended again. 

I even scrubbed the tile floor in my new office, preparing it for the arrival of my file cabinets and boxes and boxes of books.

Out in the garage, my contractor, Jeff Durham, has worked magic with a structure that was only partly finished, and that badly. Jeff stripped crumbling drywall, replaced the non-fireproof door to the house, took out a dinosaur of an inoperable gas heater, and carefully rebuilt a cozy space for Red to live.

Red, snug in the garage this evening

Yesterday, I mopped the garage floor so there would be a clean place for the movers to put boxes and bins when the big truck arrives on Tuesday. Then I put the first coat of Bona on the floors, and while it was drying, I took a break and walked up the hill to the Post Office to collect my mail, and then back downtown to join the Cody Women's Rally at City Park. 

Left to right: Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains and Red Butte, from my incredibly scenic walk to the Post Office. 

I wasn't sure to expect at the Rally--Wyoming is a Republican state, and we just elected Liz Cheney (the not-good daughter of that Cheney) as our second US Senator. By the time I got to the park, a rowdy but good-natured crowd of over 450 people had gathered, young to old, many sporting pink pussy caps and carrying signs.

My favorite sign from the rally, both for the design and the message: "A woman's place is in the resistance." 

I stood in warm sunshine with friends Connie and Jay Moody while we listened to speakers reminding us of the value of women's rights, immigrant rights, access to healthcare, and combating global climate change. Between cheering the speakers, Connie and Jay introduced me to their many friends.

My favorite part of the rally was a small moment, one that speaks volumes about the labels and stereotypes we allow to divide us. City Park is right in the center of Cody, fronting the main highway through town. As traffic passed, some drivers cheered the crowd, some yelled insults. I looked up as a semi hauling a load of logs thundered slowly along. 

The young male driver honked, pumped his fists, and then rolled down his window. I thought, "Uh oh!" Then he yelled, "I'm with you!" The crowd cheered. The driver honked his air horn again, a huge smile lighting his face, and drove on.  

On the political maps, Wyoming is marked as a Red State. That doesn't mean that this is a bad place full of hateful people. Our world is more complicated than that. What really matters is not the labels or the divisive politics, it's how we treat each other, the quality of the communities we grow, and how we work together in positive ways to nurture each other, our planet, and its web of lives.

This country is a democracy, not a monarchy. It is up to each of us to take part and set the tone for the America we believe in; the collective impact of our lives and actions is what makes this country great, not the loudest or most hateful voice. 

We can't let the fear and bullying take away our power to do good and be compassionate every single day. We all need to stand up, raise our voices, and be involved in positive ways, wherever we are.

As the log-truck driver reminded me, it's who we are inside that matters, not the labels and stereotypes we apply. There are good, caring, compassionate people everywhere. Let's work together to be the America we all believe in. 

Blessings to you all from the blue-dusk sunset in my snowy Wyoming neighborhood. 

 

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Moving in a Contrarian but Positive Direction

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My house looks like a home for wayward boxes. There are boxes everywhere: Boxes form a half-wall between the living room and the kitchen in the "great room," boxes hide under the built-in desk in my office and stack up to the lowermost bookshelves; boxes are tucked under the workbench in the workshop and fill the pantry.

Boxes line the garage shelves, and there are even boxes in the studio. All neatly labeled and numbered to correspond with the inventory sheet I'm keeping so I'll be able to find things once the movers deliver my shipment to Cody in a week or ten days.

(Yes, I am a double Virgo, which means I'm organized. Richard would say "hyper-organized," but he wasn't above admitting that he benefited from my tendency to keep our things in their places and accounted for during our many moves, and at other times.)

The moving van is due to pull up at the curb in front of Creek House sometime on Tuesday, less than two days away. I am as ready as I can be, given everything else I'm juggling, most particularly the innumerable details in keeping two real estate deals moving forward, and now the decisions involved in beginning what will be months of careful house renovation. And when I have any spare brain cells, thinking about the two talks I am scheduled to give at two different garden conferences on two consecutive days in early February...

I have spent most of the last two weeks packing, packing, packing, plus making a three-day trip to Cody with a van-load of things difficult to consign to movers, thanks to my friends Nicole and Harry Hansen, the silversmith and blacksmith who together form Sterling & Steel, makers of fine custom tableware, jewelry, flatware and other functional art. Nicole and Harry not only managed to fit my odd-shaped load in Sylvia, their amazing Mercedes-powered panel van, Harry safely drove us out of the blizzard that was blasting Salida the morning we left, and all the long and wintry drive to Cody and back.

Harry, in ready-for-Wyoming cowboy hat and sunglasses, is reflected in the rear-view mirror. Nicole's beautiful cranberry-colored cowboy hat sits on the dashboard. 

Along the way, we talked about everything from kids and family cultures to politics, art, branding, ethics, geology, and history. Our amazing conversations made the 1,260 miles there and back, and all those hours in the van together go by incredibly quickly. 

While we were in Cody, I closed on my new (old) house, and got my contractor, Jeff Durham, started on the most urgent of the work the house needs. 

It has occurred to me that this move is thoroughly contrarian: Not only am I moving many latitude lines north at a time of life when most folks dream of moving south, I am moving from a new, custom-built-to-my-specifications house into a house built the year I was born (1956). My new-old house was well-designed and custom-built too, but it's sixty years old now, and has been seriously neglected for at least the past decade, and unoccupied for most of the past 16 months. 

I'm also up-sizing when the trend is toward downsizing. I'm moving from two small buildings with a total living space of about 1,300 square feet plus a single-car garage to a 2,400 square-foot house with a two-car garage. (The main floor is 1,700 square feet; the rest is a furnished basement I will use only when I have a house-full of guests.)

And I'm moving from contemporary--I call my Salida place "industrial chic"--to Mid-Century Modern. Check out that vintage kitchen, complete with original sunshine yellow metal cabinets, and aqua wall oven in the photo below.

I'm even up-sizing my yard, moving from a lot of just under 7,000 square feet to one twice that size, and from a basically finished yard (given that to a gardener, no landscape is ever truly finished!) to one needs a radical beauty-enhancing, water-saving, habitat-providing makeover.  

Why? 

The moving north part is simply me heading home to the landscapes and community that have spoken to my heart for decades. I confess to loving snow, even blizzards. And I am fortunate to have friends in Cody who are excited about my return. 

Also, Cody is a whole day's drive closer to my 88-year-old dad and my brother and his family in western Washington, including my nieces and their kids. (Except my middle niece and her family, who are in Germany for another year and a half.) If something happens to Dad, I can take I-90 west to Seattle, and drive there in a long day (or a two-hour plane flight from Billings, Montana). 

Dad is so excited about my move that he's already planning a visit this summer, accompanied by my brother and sister-in-law. He hasn't traveled since after Mom died in 2011, so I'm thrilled. The downside is I'm a bit farther from Molly, in San Francisco, but she's being very gracious about that.

The up-sizing part wasn't my plan. I was looking at small houses, and then I stumbled on this one. One look at the spacious rooms, great light, wood floors, and that fabulous kitchen, and I fell in love. 

The living and dining areas--look at those windows! That fireplace! And the floor.... 

Of course, I also noticed the 60-year boiler that runs the hot-water baseboard (I call it Igor). Igor was top-of-the-line when new, but he's about 20 years past his retirement date. (Which he proved by quitting the weekend before Christmas in the middle of a blizzard--fortunately, my contractor had an appointment to evaluate the house the following Tuesday, and he and my wonderful real estate agent, plus the plumber, walked into the house just as the pipes began breaking. They were able to save the place without too much damage, which I was grateful for. More grateful than the owner, who grumbled about the cost of repairs. Maybe he shouldn't have neglected the house...)

And the wiring, which includes a sub-panel in the basement so old I had never seen one like it, and yes, it has to be replaced. I noticed the lack of insulation in the crawl space under the bedrooms, and the half-bath in the basement, which is so awful it looks like you'd need a tetanus shot before using the shower. And the garage, partly insulated, and partly dry-walled. And a host of other things that need updating. 

So here I go, taking up a house and yard project at sixty (me, the house and the very neglected yard--we're all the same age). Unlike Igor, I'm not ready for retirement. I'm thrilled to be moving home, and excited about bringing my new-old house back to life, and turning a lawn-and-too-many-huge-spruce-trees yard into something more beautiful, sustainable, and healthy for all. 

Mostly, I'm grateful to have a positive project to work on in these negative times. I refuse to succumb to negativity and fear. Perhaps I can't change the state of the nation, but I can serve as an example of how to live with love, compassion and generosity.

I suppose that's contrarian too; regardless, it's me being who I am and doing what I do best: healing this earth and we humans, one house and yard, one creek, one community at a time. Onward!

Chokecherry buds along the creek last spring, on a tree Richard and I planted as a bare-root sapling almost 20 years ago. Treehouse and Creek House are in the background. 

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Gratitude: My Word for 2017

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Every year around Winter Solstice, I remind myself of the word I've chosen for the year, consider what it meant and how it was expressed in the way I lived my days, and then ask myself what next year's word will be. Sometimes I hear the answer right away; other times it takes a while. 

For 2016, my word was abundance. Not in the sense of an abundance of stuff or money, or any other material thing: abundance in the sense of plenty, as I wrote in my blog post when the word came to me just after Winter Solstice in 2015:

Abundance as in "plenty": plenty of joy, plenty of time, plenty of ideas and words and readers, plenty of money, plenty of fruitful opportunities, plenty of energy and vigor, plenty of love...

Turns out abundance was a good word for my personal year, if not for the horrors of national and international events. 2016 was a year that brought all sorts of gifts, including a lot of love from family and friends.

Family love: Molly Cabe and me in February; with my brother, Bill Tweit, last month when he and my sister-in-law, Lucy Winter, and my youngest niece, Alice Tweit visited for the holidays.

So as the days grew shorter and Winter Soltice came and went last month, I listened for my word for 2017. And listened, and listened. Because I didn't like the word I heard first: gratitude

Gratitude? Really? 

After that painful election season? With the hatred and divisive politics that have overtaking my small town, the shootings in this country, the violence around the world, the refugees dying as they flee wars in the Mideast and ethnic cleansing in Africa, Burma and other places around the globe, the extinctions of other species? 

What, I thought, is there to be grateful for in these scary and turbulent times? 

Still, each time I listened, the word I heard was gratitude.

I looked up the definition: "the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness." 

Humph. 

The last part of the definition stuck with me though: to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

I think the world needs a whole lot more appreciation, and many tons of "returning kindness." So I adopted gratitude as my word for 2017, and in particular that latter meaning. 

Which, come to think of it, I do every morning (show appreciation) in my yoga and prayer routine. As I complete my asanas, I bow to the four directions, along with earth and sky, in gratitude for this place, and the living community that animates this planet, humans and the myriad of other species with whom our lives are intertwined. 

And then I speak aloud a prayer to the spirit of life, asking that I be able to live my day in love and balance, that I treat others with compassion and kindness, that I am strong but not rigid, that I walk in balance, beauty, and yes, gratitude for this existence. 

As in the view of Venus near the new moon last night...

Gratitude, I realized, the showing of appreciation and returning kindness, is not a Pollyanna sort of attitude. It doesn't preclude being engaged in the world, witnessing and working to alleviate fear, injustice, hunger, poverty of all sorts, or hatred.

It means recognizing the good, small or large, staying open and receptive to that "ocean of Light" that will overcome the ocean of fear and darkness. It means remembering to value what is positive, taking time to respect and acknowledge the blessings each day brings. 

And there are blessings, even when our days are full of pain and sorrow and anger and grief. The sun still rises and sets, snowflakes are still crystalline and beautiful, the ocean still laps or pounds the shore, this planet is still bursting with an abundance of life as dazzling as the stars in the dark night sky. 

We still have friends and family and community; we have work and art and song and dance; we have food and housing and clothes. We are alive, a gift I have learned is very precious indeed.

So yes, gratitude is my word for this new year.

I am grateful for all of you; I am grateful for the home I am leaving, my sweet little complex here in Salida (photo at the top of the post), and the home I am moving to in Wyoming (photo below). I am very grateful for life, both the capital 'L' kind and my quotidian existence.

May 2017 bring each of us much to appreciate, and may it reward our kindness abundantly. Blessings!

Sunset behind Cedar and Rattlesnake mountains just outside Cody, Wyoming

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